Avoiding the Train Wreck: Making the Explicit Link between Diversity and Inclusion

This article, written by Joanne Tompkins, Faculty of Education, appears in the Summer 2019 edition of The Beacon.

“Diversity without inclusion usually ends in train wreck” – Robert Wright

At the request of CABSS (Committee for Aboriginal and Black Student Success), the office of the Human Rights and Equity Office invited Robert Wright1, MSW, to StFX to lead professional learning on cultural competency and on moving equity forward on our campus. I generally seek these presentations out as my teaching, research, and service rest on these two topics and I can say, without a doubt, that Mr. Wright’s session was one of the best and most pragmatic conversations about diversity and inclusion that I have attended.

As suggested by his opening quotation, Mr. Wright declared that to increase diversity in an organization without a deep understanding of inclusion is to court disaster. Mr. Wright made reference to the recent efforts of the Halifax Fire Department to diversify its workforce by increasing the number of African Nova Scotian and female firefighters on its teams. The organization had a poor understanding of inclusion, and within a very short time complaints arose and the force has faced several class action lawsuits from African Nova Scotian and female firefighters who experienced discrimination within the force. Clearly a train wreck!

It is incumbent that at all levels, but particularly at the most senior, there is an understanding that StFX, like most public institutions in Canada is de facto a hostile place, as its roots are steeped in Eurocentrism. In the early years of the University, it is safe to say that students who attended StFX did so with supports from their families who had enough income to support them. As overall prosperity increased post-WW2, more of the sons and daughters of coal miners, farmers, immigrants, fisherman, teachers, and plant workers were able to have access to university education. There was and currently is a fair share of children of professional classes who came to StFX. Until recently few African Canadians, Indigenous students, immigrant African Nova Scotians, and working class students did not have the means to attend StFX. Faculty and staff were generally a reflection of the student body. The demographics at StFX are changing and the campus is more diverse in terms of race, sex, ethnicity, first language spoken, citizenship, age, income, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, and gender identity, etc. So while we have increased the diversity of the students, faculty, and staff on our campus, we know from forums on diversity at X that many groups of people do not yet feel ‘included’, and experience levels of discrimination and exclusion.

Our challenge lies in the fact that StFX is embarking on diversity without a deep and broad understanding of what inclusion is and what it means to an organization. Too frequently we have been reacting to ‘train wrecks’, rather than having the foresight and understanding to prevent them from occurring. Inclusion is about feeling a sense of belonging and significance. There are groups of students, some of them the second and third generation of X grads in their families, who feel very connected to the culture of StFX and feel an immediate sense of belonging. In fact, the University was really designed with them in mind. However there are other groups of students, as I have mentioned above, who aren’t interested in having to change their identity to fit into the dominant norms and Eurocentric attitudes and practices that still exist on campus. These students, staff, and faculty are pushing StFX to become more inclusive to catch up with the diversity that is, and has been for a while, a part of the campus.

If StFX is to become more inclusive, then it has to recognize at the level of the organization and environment it is still largely a hostile place, as was/is the Halifax Fire Department to African Nova Scotians and female fire fighters. Hoping environments that have historically been hostile and exclusionary will turn into inclusive spaces without doing the rethinking and restructuring that inclusion demands is foolhardy. When, as an institution, we start to move forward without spending hours of time being defensive, apologizing, feeling hurt, or mopping up after missteps occur, we will have made a huge cultural shift. We can build a model for faculty, staff and student learning about inclusion at StFX. We can learn to identify attitudes, structures, policies, and spaces that are currently hostile or exclusionary to certain groups of people. Those of us in the organization that belong to dominant groups (white, English first language, straight, cisgender, middle class, Settler, Canadian born, able-bodied, male, etc.) can and do learn to listen to our students, faculty, and staff who do not carry the privileges so many of us on campus do. We can learn to look at inclusion from the perspective of those who do not feel included and take the time and energy to listen to tell us about what needs to be done. When we learn how to do that we will have learned what the Ontario Human Rights Commission (2005) calls the Platinum Rule: “Treat others as they would like to be treated”. We have started to do this in some arenas, some corners of the campus. We need to make it pervasive throughout all sectors of campus life.

Mr. Wright’s presentation was not merely theoretical. He provides leadership on diversity and inclusion in the province and throughout the country and he was able to give us some starting points to how we could begin. We could, for example, tweak the reference to the Xaverian ‘family’, which may ring true for some people on campus, but far from all. Not surprisingly, Mr. Wright borrowed from his social work roots and suggested we liken the community at StFX to a ‘blended family’. In a blended family, people know they are coming from different communities and take the time to welcome each other, learn who each other is, and engage in explicit conversations about what they will all need to do so they can live well together. To date, StFX, like many Canadian Universities, has invited minoritized people to come here and hoped that they will fit in or assimilate into the historical Eurocentric institution we have built. In a blended family model we would exert energy ensuring everyone’s needs are met. Given that StFX is a residential University and that most students not only learn here, but live at the University, explicit conversations about how we ‘live’ together takes on special meaning.

And inclusion has to be understood and steps taken to achieving it at the attitudinal, institutional, and systemic levels. All people in management and leadership positions, which include people in teaching positions, would be required to complete diversity competency courses. All people would be encouraged to understand and employ the language around equity. At every hiring, faculty and staff would be asked “How do you and will you contribute to the efforts at inclusion and diversity on campus?” (By the way, just in case you think this Mr. Wright is dreaming in Technicolor, appointees to the judicial bench in Nova Scotia are now asked this very question at interviews).

Mr. Wright’s recommendations also included:

  • making ‘real programs’ of invitation to actively seek out members of historically underrepresented groups to apply for positions at the University,
  • being transparent about the challenges around inclusion that do exist and naming what those challenges are. This involves understanding that discriminatory events are not a ‘one-off event’ (‘S/he is just a rotten apple’), but rather are a part of ‘systems of discrimination’ [The apple basket needs redesigning],
  • ensuring the various groups of people leading diversity and inclusion on campus have the necessary understanding of diversity AND inclusion to lead this work,
  • acknowledging the extra burden racialized and minoritized faculty and staff face in attempting to provide support and resources to help students, staff, and faculty who face micro-aggressions and other acts of discrimination and violence,
  • ensuring that the advisors of historically marginally groups on campus are supported in their efforts to support their students and acknowledging the emotional toll involved in doing this work on a daily basis, and
  • ensuring that there are counsellors with explicit training in supporting students, staff, and faculty who experience violence and micro-aggression related to race, social class, sex, gender, etc.

Mr. Wright is a highly talented individual. He has a deep understanding and lived experience of diversity and inclusion. He understands the structure and culture of organizations and how to effect change in them. Importantly, he knows the context of Nova Scotia and specific challenges we face historically and contemporarily as we try to become a more inclusive province. He has a track record of being able to help people in organizations develop the skills, attitudes and competencies they need. He is a terrific educator and communicator, and he demonstrated this in our one-hour session. In short, this guy ‘walks the walk’ and I am hoping this is his first of many visits to work with us to keep our train on its track.

Joanne Tompkins teaches courses in Sociology of Education, Inclusive Practices, and First Nations Education in the B. Ed. Program and Foundations of Education and Leadership in the M.Ed. program.

  1. Robert Wright, MSW, RSW, is a Social Worker and Sociologist whose 29 year career has spanned the field of education, child welfare, forensic mental health, trauma, sexual violence, and cultural competence. He has always integrated his work delivering direct practice clinical service to clients with teaching and supervising interns, and promoting lasting systemic change through social policy advocacy. He also consults, trains, speaks, and comments on a wide range of issues. His pioneering work with colleagues in cultural competence and conducting cultural assessment has received national attention. (http://www.robertswright.ca/)